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Rad Racer Review Rewind

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On 11/27/2013 at 12:08 PM by Jamie Alston

Still one of the best racing games 26 years later.

For anyone looking for a fun time with a surprisingly intuitive 8-bit racer.

Updated 2-23-2019

Most NES veterans should be familiar with one of the best racing games on the NES way back in 1987. But, quick show of hands- how many knew that Squaresoft made it? Yep, the developer responsible for Final Fantasy released Rad Racer (Highway Star in Japan) just months before its famous RPG. Rad Racer always stands out as one of my fondest childhood memories. I can still recall my dad sitting there in the living room with us as we took turns racing and wiping out after hitting a tree.  He was just as thrilled with all the high-speed excitement as we were.  Fortunately, many years after my first go with this game, it still hasn't lost much of its appeal.

The main objective of the game is to win a series of eight races spread across the world.  You won't have to worry about coming in first place, but you will be racing against a sometimes unforgiving timer.  If you have a flawless race, you're good to go.  But if you crash just once, you'll quickly find yourself furiously trying to make it to the next time extension flag.  Some locations are entirely fictional, while others are based on real-world places.  For instance, the first location is called "Sunset Coastline"; the next race's area is on the "San Francisco Highway."  Regardless of which courses you're on, they’re all fun to race.

You have a choice of driving one of two cars: the sexy Twin Turbo or the F1 Machine.  Neither car differs in speed or handling, but I do recommend choosing the Twin Turbo because you'll race against different kinds of vehicles on each course.  If you select the F1 Machine, you'll only be racing against other F1 Machines of various hues of the same color on each course.  Assuming that you've chosen the Twin Turbo, you'll be competing against cars like the Volkswagen Bug, Lamborghini, Corvette, Testarossa, and a few other licensed automobiles.  As you progress through the courses, the CPU cars drive more aggressively. So exercise caution when you hit that turbo and try to speed through a traffic-littered straightaway.

The heart and soul of this game are the gameplay and smooth controls.  The game does a decent job of giving you a convincing sense of speed, and your car feels balanced.  I never found myself fighting with its handling mechanics.  Also, I’ve always appreciated that the game doesn’t limit your use of the turbo boost.  I find it quite surprising that you’re more or less free to use it as liberally as possible.  The only real setback is that you can crash your car if you rear-end another vehicle at top speed (in later stages anyway).  Oddly enough, the game shows you a little mercy should the timer reach zero.  Instead of stopping dead in your tracks, the car will coast on the speed you have at that moment, allowing you to possibly make it to the next checkpoint.  Though a minimal feature, it helped the game separate itself from similar games like Outrun.

The controls are simple and easy to pick up.  The learning curve isn’t so hard once you get used to it.  After years of playing racing games with more realistic physics, I did find it to be a bit challenging to get my bearings on the sharper corners.  Some may get a little frustrated, as it’s easy to screech off course and crash into a tree or sign if you don’t anticipate the turn's steepness ahead of time.  But taking care to dial it back on the hairpin turns can remedy that, especially if you've been using the turbo on a straightaway.  But that's a minor problem as the overall feel of the game isn't tarnished in any way.  Besides, once you become good at the game, you'll learn how to make up for lost time with the turbo when used skillfully.

Don't let the box art fool you--the graphics are outstanding, considering when this game was released.  Square did an excellent job creating a game that made you feel like you were (almost) right there on the scene.  Although a few locations come up short in visual pizzazz, most of the courses have rich, well-detailed backgrounds.

The highlight of the visual presentation is the parallax scrolling backgrounds.  This technique is best shown in the nighttime city courses, like San Francisco Highway (my personal favorite).  There's nothing more beautiful than racing on a dark roadway, with skyscrapers, bridges, and small city lights lining the background!  Additionally, some courses feature changes in the time of day or weather, which you'll notice by watching the sky's changing color.  Good on Squaresoft for their attention to detail.

The game’s music was composed by Nobuo Uematsu--the same composer of the music for the Final Fantasy series. There are only three music tracks, but they fit the game very well.  Better yet, you can change songs anytime you want during the race; press the "down" key to change the music.  And hey, if you don't like the music, you can always opt to race without it.  The songs are a bit repetitive but very listenable nonetheless.  I love all three tunes, but my favorite is the third one.  I always play it on night courses.

There was also some nice attention to detail with the sound of your car’s motor and the other cars on the road (most easily heard when no music is playing).  Some may find the tires' screeching sounds to be annoying when navigating steep turns, but I don't think it will bother too many people.  I’ve heard worse sound effects in other racing games.

Overall, Rad Racer is a fine game for any player who may be tired of the current racing games in recent years.  Sometimes it's more fun to pop in that gray cartridge and take a trip down memory lane.  This game's fun and quality is right up there with its contemporaries like Pole Position and OutrunRad Racer is a ride that many will come back to again.  Remember to fasten your seatbelts.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

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A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.




11/27/2013 at 09:35 AM

This was one of my favourites growing up.  If memory serves me correctly, I was able to get to the 2nd race, but never got any farther.  

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

11/27/2013 at 02:15 PM

That's interesting.  I don't think I made it very far in the game myself when I was a kid.  I probablly topped out at around the 3rd stage or so.  I mostly watched my older brother get further in the game.  He never beat the game, but he knew the code to skip to the end scene.

I eventually beat it as an adult though.  Good game.


11/27/2013 at 01:58 PM

I LOVED this game growing up. I think I used the 3-D feature once or twice (I think you hit select to get it into 3-D mode, and you had those funky glasses). This game and Pole Position were the games that got me into the racing genre. Excellent read, and thanks for the trip down memory lane!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

11/27/2013 at 02:18 PM

Man, I'm so jealous-- even when I played it as a kid, we didn't have the luxury of having it brand new with the 3D glasses.  My brother got Rad Racer from a flea market back in 1991.

But yeah, Rad Racer and Pole Position II on the Atari 7800 were responsible for getting me into the racing genre.  Rad racer was the better expeirence of the two for me.


11/27/2013 at 04:40 PM

Oh I used to love buying games from flea markets. There was this guy who sold carts for $5 each. He didn't care it was a sports game, to one of Tengen black carts, to random RPGs. Everything was $5. 

Funny thing, I never played Pole Position on a console. It was always the arcade stand up or my favorite the sit down. The first and only time I played Pole Position at home was when I bought a Jaguar and bought the game. 

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

11/27/2013 at 11:44 PM

Pole Position was on the Jaguar? As in Atari Jaguar?? I'm floored.


11/28/2013 at 12:38 AM

My bad, I was thinking of Checkered Flag. Smile I looked it up and I remember an Indy car, but it turns out it was Checkered Flag.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

11/27/2013 at 03:13 PM

good review, Jamie!  I was more of an Outrun man, and I never even heard of this one until lately, I think.  But it seems fun!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

11/27/2013 at 11:46 PM

Yeah, OutRun was what I call "the original Rad Racer". Excellent game from Sega in its own right.


11/27/2013 at 05:07 PM

Great review Jamie! I love this game. It's my favorite racing game on NES. I had played it recently, and was surprised by how tight the courses are. One mistake can be utterly devastating! I had bought Rad Racer 2 as well. It seemed pretty generic though. One of the songs you could choose was called "Sing Yourself". (no music) That's just laziness lol. Tongue Out

Travis Hawks Senior Editor

11/27/2013 at 05:16 PM

That cracks me up for some reason.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

11/27/2013 at 11:52 PM

Dude, I was sooo disappointed when I finally got to play Rad Racer 2 in more recent years. The music is boring, and like you said...that whole "sing yourself" crap was stupid. Of course, by the That game came out, most of Square's energy was focused in Final Fantasy games anyway.


11/30/2013 at 09:16 AM

I played Rad Racer at a friend's house during the 80s.  I hadn't played it since.  It would be nice to have this game in my collection.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

11/30/2013 at 04:52 PM

If you ever decide to get yourself an NES, Rad Racer won't run you for much cash thankfully.  It's an easy find.  Thanks for reading!


11/30/2013 at 05:47 PM

I already own a couple NESs.  Or is it NESes?  Laughing

Cary Woodham

12/07/2013 at 01:04 PM

This was one of the few games I could get my dad to play on the NES.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

12/08/2013 at 03:42 PM

Yeah, me too!  My dad played this one sometimes as well.  One of the few games I could get him to play.


12/08/2013 at 03:47 PM

Rad racer was great. I also remember putting many hours into Knight rider and Excite bike. No,I'm not old! I'm youthfully challenged!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

12/10/2013 at 03:22 PM

I didn't like Knight Rider all that much.  I could never get past the first level.  Maybe I was just playing it wrong.

Excitebike is my jam!  That was the only other racing game we had on the NES back in the day.


12/15/2013 at 07:56 PM

This was a really impressive racer for the NES. Come to think of it, other than this and Rare's RC Pro-Am, I can't really think of any other good NES racing games.

Square has always been good at pushing the limits of the hardware it is making games for. They've made a few racing games since then, like Driving Emotion Type S, but they haven't really made an impact amongst the Ridge Racers, Gran Turismos, or Forzas of the modern gaming world. It's also kind of mind-blowing that Nobuo Uematsu did the music for this one. I got to meet Mr. Uematsu in person at Distant Worlds in Omaha this past March. I got a picture with him, conductor Arnie Roth, my wife, and myself, as well as having him autograph the front cover of my copy of Final Fantasy IX.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

12/16/2013 at 08:16 AM

You got a picture with Uematsu??  Can you post it?


01/07/2014 at 04:09 PM

Thanks to you, I ended up booting it up for a few minutes. My memories of this game were of never getting to the first checkpoint, thanks to what, 6 freaking 90 degree turns? Talk about brutal as a youngster!  I also never knew about the turbo or music, either. heh They really should have let you choose 2 or 3 courses to start. Okay, now I just finished the first course for the first time ever. Go me! Those other cars are very crummy, though, changing lanes when you're trying to pass. I guess I know what I'm doing for a little bit, now. heh

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